341: My Review of Bluff City Law: How is Memphis a real place that exists?

I was born and raised in Memphis, and it remains my favorite city in the world. It’s a city full of weird, interesting, and incredibly genuine people.

After going to law school in Knoxville for 3 years and living in Nashville for the past 20 years, I’ve heard all the criticisms that the rest of Tennessee has about Memphis. But, what they don’t realize is that Memphis doesn’t care about what the rest of the state thinks. Memphis sees itself as its own state, identifying more with western Arkansas and northern Mississippi.

All those “let’s give Memphis to Mississippi and Arkansas” jokes? Sounds good to most Memphis people.

So, it’s no surprise that I share Memphis’ civic pride about Bluff City Law, a legal drama set in (and actually filmed in) Memphis. If you follow the live tweets, you’ll see all types of Memphians recognizing the filming locations, spotting locals as extras, and deliberating the authenticity when Jimmie Smits declares “I grew up in South Memphis!” as he beats a guy up. (Note: The consensus is that this is fine.)

The Commercial Appeal does a regular episode recap, which can be found here. One of my favorite writers, Chris Herrington, does a recap for the Daily Memphian, and here’s his Episode 2 recap.

I’ll save you a full recap, but I thought it was a bit “on the nose” to have one of the legal subplots involve a inter-family dispute over a generations old barbecue sauce recipe. I mean, c’mon, a lawsuit over barbecue in Memphis?

But, my skepticism was won over later in the episode, when the (now) demolished ruins of the Wm. C. Ellis & Sons Ironworks and Machine Shop ended up being a critical plot piece.

This is unintentionally timely, since–just last week–the Tennessee Court of Appeals issued an opinion related to ongoing legal issues arising from the 2017 sale of that historic Memphis site, which is being developed into a Live/Work/Play area called One Beale. (Obviously, the TV show did not delve into the probate and guardianship issues that the Court of Appeals did. I consider that a smart plot decision.)

But, regardless, I enjoyed seeing the show incorporate the actual streets of Memphis into their plot lines.

Other items of note from the episode:

  • I appreciated that the lawyers took such good care to protect their ties while eating the messy ribs. One tucked his tie into his dress shirt (the northerner); the other flipped it over his shoulder (the Memphian). Personally, I avoid eating ribs altogether when wearing a tie, but I feel like flipping the tie over your shoulder is a more “Memphis” move. It’s less pretentious.
  • Given the high rates of Bankruptcy filings in Memphis, I think the lawyers trying to stop the farm foreclosure would have just gone to 200 Jefferson Street (i.e. the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District) and filed a Chapter 12 (which occurs fairly frequently in that district), rather than commandeering a golf cart at Chickasaw Country Club and tracking down a judge to sign an emergency TRO.
  • To be clear, to all my non-lawyer friends, that is not how quickly and efficiently and hap-haphazardly the wheels of justice move.
  • Also, why are all the lawyers in the show graduates of Vanderbilt Law School?
  • When the opposing party got so mad at Jimmy Smits, I loved that he threatened to report him to the Tennessee Bar Association. It’s strange to hear somebody talk about the TBA on NBC in primetime.
  • I remain surprised that the lawyers keep getting happy hour drinks on Beale Street, notably Rum Boogie Cafe. What, was Mud Island not open? With all the awesome dive bars in Memphis, there has got to be a better setting for these scenes. Are you really telling me that Alex’s Tavern, the P&H Cafe, or Ernestine & Hazels’ aren’t available for filming?

That’s really my biggest complaint about the show: Memphis might possibly be the most authentic place on Earth, but the show is treating the stories like they are set in [Insert City Name Here]. There’s so much grit and grind and weird and crazy and bizarre in the city of Memphis, and I would think these plots and subplots would write themselves.

I mean, one of the perennial candidates for Mayor of Memphis (Prince Mongo), claims that he’s an alien from outer space (Zambodia, to be exact). The most famous nightspot is a downtown disco, run by a cape wearing DJ with a checkered past who preached no discrimination in between Prince songs, sirens, and blasts from a smoke machine (RIP Raiford).

There’s just so much extra in Memphis, and I hope the writers and show runners get to a comfortable place where they can explore those facets of the city that can really differentiate this TV show from the regular, been-there-done-that legal drama.

Just last week, I saw a great tweet during the Memphis Tigers and Navy football game, when the ESPN cameras caught some Memphis fans, wearing an incredibly authentic Memphis t-shirt, enjoying the Memphis victory and maybe a little bit too much. In response:

How is Memphis a real place that exists? Whenever I take friends out and show them my favorite places in Memphis, and they interact with the great people who live there, that’s what I hear from them. In a good way.

So, Bluff City Law, I hope you find whatever that is. Have Jimmy Smits go to Gus’ World Famous Fried Chicken. Have Sydney meet with a criminal informant at Printer’s Alley. Have Della (the probate lawyer) represent one of the Ellis heirs in the guardianship dispute.

Author: David

I am a creditors rights and commercial litigation attorney in Nashville, Tennessee.

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